Video Interview with Eugene Peterson

Video / Produced by The High Calling
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The musical group U2's Bono quotes Eugene Peterson from the stage. Readers of the best-selling Bible, The Message, find themselves holding onto lines from his fog-slicing Bible paraphrase and many other works.

For several years, provided a daily prayer and reflection by Eugene Peterson. He has spoken with us before and written some articles for us, and he is a regular speaker at Laity Lodge, one of our partner ministries in the Laity Renewal Foundation.

During a summer retreat at Laity Lodge in 2008, Eugene Peterson sat down with one of our directors, Steven Purcell, for a conversation about faith, work, and art. After you view the video interview (about 17 minutes) or read the edited transcript below, we invite you to visit Laity Lodge's YouTube channel where you'll find other interviews with leading Christian thinkers.

Give us your thoughts about the sacred-secular divide.

It’s a false distinction. There is no secular-sacred divide. And, there wasn’t until the 18th century. It’s an enlightenment thing. Martin Buber was a great Jewish writer, philosopher, theologian, and translator, and he spent much of his life fighting this distinction, trying to show the world how this was a false distinction.

It destroys people on both sides.

“Secular” people think they don’t have anything to do with God. “Sacred” people don’t think they have to deal with the world or anything that’s not God visibly. So it distorts from both sides. But we can recover. In fact, this is what the Christian faith, basically, is trying to do—recover the interpenetration of God into the way we live our lives.

So the division between laity and clergy is a myth too?

This is something that Laity Lodge is particularly concerned with—the division between laity and clergy. I went through a list of people the other day of who have influenced me the most. In England it was Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Baron von Hugel. All of them were lay people, not a single clergyman or priest in them. In America, Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner, Bill McKibben, William Stringfellow, all laymen. Stanley Hauerwas, one of our best theologians, was a layman. Kathleen Norris, Marilynne Robinson, both lay people. I think we cannot just lay down and accept that distinction between laity and clergy. Or let people make that distinction. We can’t try to deal with it by saying, “We’ve got to bridge this gap between laity and clergy.” There is no gap. It’s just a perception gap. Our witness and the way we live can take care of that or do something about it.

Why is it difficult for us to see our daily work as holy or sacred?

The glib answer is that it’s the devil’s work to make us think that way. There is no place in our history, in our tradition, in Scripture that makes that kind of division. Most Christians do their best work in the marketplace, in the home, in the street, doing business, buying cars, selling cars.

One of the really famous best sellers among Christians is Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence was a lay brother. He was not clergy. He wrote these letters and meditations in which he talked about flipping pancakes to the glory of God, picking up straw off the floor to the glory of God.

Just a few years ago, Kathleen Norris wrote a book called The Quotidian Mysteries. She’s a poet, and her book is Brother Lawrence for Americans in the 21st century. Quotidian means “daily.” What you do daily. And she goes through all these daily things and shows the sacredness. This is the place and time when we live to the glory of God.

I say it’s the devil’s work because there’s nothing inherently un-Christian or unspiritual or unsacred about any of those daily activities. But if you have somebody whispering in your ear, “This is not Christian work. You’re not praying. You’re not doing good.” That just distorts you.

What does faith look like outside the church?

The whole task of the Christian witness is to do what Jesus did. We incarnate the presence of God, the action of God, the words of God, where we are. One of the remarkable things about Jesus’ life is he was comfortable in the temple, comfortable in the synagogues, but he didn’t spend most of his time there. Most of his time was in the marketplace, fields, around people’s tables, on the streets. And he wasn’t less sacred when he was having dinner with the Pharisees or with the prostitutes or the tax collectors than when he was in the temple and in the synagogue.

How do artists help us see God around us?

I used to drive up every week into Pennsylvania—we lived in Maryland—to visit a woman in a nursing home. In the winter time, especially, there was just grey, grey, a lot of farm land, nothing going on. One time, we both stopped in this museum and looked at this painting by Andrew Wyeth. There was a girl, Christina, sitting on a hillside and that’s it. It’s not a romantic picture, but suddenly, I was never bored again when I would make that drive to Pennsylvania. Every time I looked out on those hills then, I just saw Christina every place. This is the environment where beauty takes place, and courage. But, artists did that for me. Musicians do it. Of course, storytellers do.

If we let other people select what we are doing, like if television is your way to get out of yourself or escape the ordinary, that doesn’t help. Because you’re letting somebody else introduce the world into you. An artist doesn’t do that. You’ve got to find them usually. You can buy pictures, you can go to a studio, you can go to museums. Or, you can do it yourself. You can do your own painting; you can do your own photography. Make up you own songs. Like Matthew did this morning at Laity Lodge, he made up his own song, and it was quite lovely. It was him. And nobody thought, “What’s he doing that for? He can buy a CD and get something better than that.”

What motivated you to write The Message?

The quick answer is I was asked to do it. It was an assignment, but once I started doing it, I realized I’d been doing this all my life. I had a congregation of people who didn’t know the Bible. I mean I’m overexaggerating. Some did, but there were a lot of new Christians. There were a lot of tired old Christians who had quit reading the Bible years ago. So I wanted to recover the story of the Scriptures. I wanted to recover the narrative tenor of the Bible. The first editions of The Message didn’t have any verse numbers. That was deliberate, and I gave that up reluctantly, tried to keep them as hidden as possible. But I wanted to recover the fact that this is not a book of moral things, moral axioms, or dogmatic propositions or ideas about how to live your life. This is a story that you live into.

Tell us about the difference between "studying" the Bible and "reading" the Bible.

It distressed me for years as a pastor that people often studied the Bible, but they never read it. They tried to find stuff in it to use. They didn’t enter it and let the story live through them. I think you can be self-conscious about reading the Bible; it becomes a religious act. It’s not a religious act; it’s a human act. I mean these are all real people who did the same stuff we did: Abraham doubted, David murdered and committed adultery, and Job doubted and cursed God or came close to it. These are all people very much like us in a different culture, but still the same components, and this is their story. This is how God met them and how they sometimes had no idea he was meeting them for years. They would be surprised by what happened. That’s what motivated me. It motivated me before I knew it was motivating me. I was doing this long before I knew what I was doing.

Do we really need disciplines to follow rigidly?

Rather than programmed disciplines, I think we know we need silence. We need solitude. We need space. We need negative space. Look for ways to do that, because everybody’s life is a little bit different. I guess I hate the imposition of disciplines on people. They kind of become corsets. I think of them as corsets, but nobody wears corsets anymore. My mother, every Sunday after church, the first thing she did when she would get into the house is say, “Oh, I’ve got to get this corset off.” She’d go into the bedroom and remove her corset and say, “Oh, I feel so much better.” Well, for a lot of people, spirituality is a corset. They don’t put it on all the time, but every once in a while they do. And they can’t breathe.

When you experience silence, when you keep a Sabbath, you deliberately interfere with how the world expects you to do things. Without even trying, you have more solitude, more silence, more space. You can look around, and you can listen. Breaking through the noise, the demands of the culture, of the household, and your workplace, that all requires some intervention. Without some intentionality, you just get filled up with everybody else’s agenda. So anything you can do to break that—keeping a Sabbath is the obvious way to do it. But just keeping the Sabbath doesn’t do it unless you keep the Sabbath as a Sabbath. It isn’t just a day off. Think of practices like photography, painting, water color, bird watching, all these activities slow you down and make you pay attention. This is why artists are so important to us, because artists don’t paint anything that you don’t see everyday. They just help you see something that has been there all along.

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